The locker room is different for every sport but what remains the same is the constant stream of writers, attendants, public relations folk, coaches, trainers, cameramen and reporters in and out before and after the ball is tipped. Often, you might have one shot to ask a question you’ve been thinking of all year long. If a team is coming in from the Western Conference and you blow a chance to speak because of some lame excuse, you have to wait a full year before you see that team again and will have to settle for other writer’s quotes for your story. Not cool. Get your own stuff by any means necessary. My point is, there are a few writers I know who make sure they get in everything they need every time out.
You all know I’m a beast running around from locker room to locker room, but I’ve learned everything from those who came before me. I learn a lot from columnists, but I resonate more with beat writers. There is a rush getting quotes from players as the game happens instead of offering an opinion based on observing from a distance. Beat writers document the daily stories of teams they cover and streamline their approach to securing quotes from athletes out of necessity. Building relationships by putting in the time to cultivate a working atmosphere (sometimes not) between writer and athlete. Of course familiarity breeds contempt but the best make it happen.
Meeting deadline shortly after a game can be difficult, but for beat writers, it’s expected. Their job isn’t easy. The travel is not as glamorous as one would think.
Some of the writers I hold in high regard (who I’ve come across professionally) are Scoop Jackson, David Aldridge, Chris Broussard, Phil Jasner, our own Anthony Gilbert, Dei Lynam, James Beale, Chris Murray, Donald Hunt, Ken Berger, Bob Ford, Martin Frank and of course Marc J. Spears–to name a few.
Spears gets the athlete to open up because he’s confident in what he does. Very few writers have a gift akin to a doctor’s bedside manner. When athletes feel comfortable, this is where the real stories fans want to hear, read and see are developed. Marc is definitely one of the best at doing this and is one of the most respected beat writers in the nation.
Every writer is different, but I’m down with the ones who challenge the athlete to open up just like any other person on the street, in the barbershop, restaurant or grocery store. Everything shouldn’t be easy for the athlete as well. He or she must be held accountable like everyone else across the athletic landscape.
There must be creativity or a beat writer becomes monotonous.
Readers should be tired of the same old quotes and sound bytes and production enhanced athlete spoken reactions. Get in there and make it different or the athlete will have no more use for us.
Marc Spears gets it done…
Michael Tillery: Why are you a journalist and how did you get to this day?
Marc J. Spears: “Actually, when I was in the 7th grade…I grew up in San Jose, California…there was a career day that I went to. I always was heavily involved in sports, but I was falling in love with basketball at that time.
At this career day, there was a PR (public relations) guy from the Golden State Warriors. The only reason why I really went to go listen to him really was to hopefully get some free tickets. We got to go to some games, but we couldn’t afford to go that often. He asked me what I wanted to do when I got older. I told him I wanted to play for the Warriors and he said he wasn’t saying that I couldn’t but, what was I going to do if I couldn’t become a pro athlete. I told him I didn’t know and he said his advice to me was to combine something I love most with something I did best in school.
I really listened to what the man had to say. I thought about it. I told him I was really good at integration writing and really good in P.E. because I loved sports.
I thought about what he said a lot after I left.
My love from sports was enhanced by my subscription to Sports Illustrated. A subscription I had since elementary school.
So I was interested in being a sports writer. I actually the next day had a teacher give us an assignment to write a letter…this is 1984…to someone in a career we were interested in.
So I wrote a letter to a sports columnist named Mark Purdy. I told Mr. Purdy basically who I was and what I thought about doing and asked could he give me some advice.
He wrote me back and detailed everything that I needed to do to become a sports writer. He told me I needed to write for the school paper now, take all the typing and English classes I could take.
Then when I got into college I needed to again write for the school paper, take as many internships as possible and take top English courses.
I took that letter with me and joined the school paper. The first thing I got to cover was the 8th grade flag football team. I took Typing 1and 2 in high school.
The high school I went to in San Jose…Andrew Hill…had a Journalism teacher who was very influential.
I played college basketball at Foothill College (2 years). I played at University of District of Columbia for one year. Transferred to San Jose State (graduated with print journalism degree) where I blew out my knee, redshirted and didn’t get to play my last year.
I wrote for all three school papers. I interned at a weekly newspaper called the San Jose Metro, the Grand Rapids Press and the Dallas Morning News.
At the first Unity convention in Atlanta I got to write for the paper there and it really helped me out a lot. It catapulted me ahead of most college students. I also wrote freelance stories for the Mercury News. I took phone for high school scores on the weekend.
As a college kid, I had a pretty extensive resume. That has a lot to do with the advice that Mr. Purdy gave me.
Two years ago I got a call from Mr. Purdy. I hadn’t talked to him even though I covered sports in the Bay area. I was in Denver for my job in San Jose. He told me he knew me from San Jose and always liked my writing. He said he was just touching base with me to see what I was interested in. I told him I’d been wanting to talk to him for the longest.
I told him that it was because of him that I was here doing what I do today. I told him about the initial letter I sent and he was shocked and taken aback. He was really humbled by what I said. I remember what he did for me, so I try to do the same thing for anyone wanted to go down a similar path. I’m also serving on the NABJ Sports Task Force (Vice-President of Print and helped raise $37,000 for aspiring sports journalists scholarships last year). There are a lot of people who played a role in who I am today.
I came to the Globe from the Denver Post where I covered the Nuggets.”
Mizzo: Just looking back over your time and because your resume is extensive, you are probably one of the best soul models for the younger generation getting into journalism.
I’m interested in speaking about your locker room presence. It’s something I picked up on when Boston was in Philly last season and also during the Finals. Not many writers of any ilk have the connection you have with players. Do you think it has something to do with you psych background, because you were an athlete or a combination of things?
MJS: “I think it is a combination of a lot of things. The minor in psychology helped a little bit. I think I can read people. The moods they are in and that helps me guage what type of questions to ask…especially if it’s a touchy subject. Antonio McDyess told me he could tell I played basketball by the type of questions I asked. I’m a big guy. I lot of them I look in the eye and a lot of them I’m taller than. That helps and also because I’m a pretty easy going guy.
It’s not my job to be a columnist. I try to give everyone a fair shot and not hit anybody with salvos. I’m not a columnist.”
Mizzo: Is that something you might eventually want to get into?
MJS: “Man, I’m in my dream job right now. I always wanted to be an NBA writer since I covered the Nuggets in 1999. This is the best sports market in the country in my opinion. They don’t let anything go by man. If they don’t like something you write they will let you know. For the most part, they are pretty on top of it.
It’s a city that not only has so much history as a town but its sports is something exciting to always be around. I could walk in somewhere to get a bite to eat and Jo Jo White will be sitting there or Bob Cousy or Robert Parrish. You just see people all the time. It’s a basketball writer’s dream.”
Mizzo: Take me back to the Finals last year. When you initially walked out on the court from the press room or whatever, what was your immediate thought? Was it business as usual?
MJS: “I’ve covered the Finals before but that was different. It was different because I’d never covered a team that was in the Finals. Until that season, I’d never covered a team that made it past the first round. The Nuggets were either OK or poor the whole time I was there.
I felt strongly the Celtics were going to beat the Lakers because they were so better defensively. I definitely wasn’t surprised how things came around. To be a part of the first Finals they had there in years…2 decades…and also to be playing the Lakers? To cover that grinding and very tough series was very exciting.”
Mizzo: It was. It really was something I’ll cherish forever.
The one thing I’ve noticed about KG is that he seems to evolve in the moment. He evolves through his personality that is seemingly set in stone.
My people don’t wanna hear it because it’s coming from me, but could you tell people just how intense he really is compared to other players?
MJS: “Man, I haven’t covered anybody like him. Especially on game days. He just tunes in like nobody I’ve ever seen. We don’t say anything to him on game day in the locker room. We just try to get out of his way. Some people might think it’s a prima donna thing, but it’s not. It’s focus. They’ll be times where I’ll be talking to players in the locker room and won’t engage Kevin because I know that’s not his style. What’s really interesting is to watch him right before the game. He has this routine. He does something and hits his head on the cushion under the basket and peeps to the left. He walks over to the corner and gets in this stance and then walks by the bench and gives all the coaches a pound. Then a pound from the PR guy Jeff Twiss. Then he gets the chalk and throws the chalk up in the air (He’s been doing this long before LeBron was even in the league). He always has to stick his feet on the sticky thing. He walks out and has to give every player a pound on the opposing team. He points at every referee. He turns and does this scream and pumps his chest. It’s a motivational thing. He never deviates. It’s always the same thing. He also does the same routine on free throws where…hit or miss..he reaches ahead and back for teammates even if there isn’t anyone in back of him.
That’s his formula for success. His intensity is something I’ve never seen matched by any other player. He’s definitely a joy to cover. He demands nothing but the best out of himself and his teammates. The focus and the energy is not the same without him being out.”
Mizzo: Why wasn’t he on the bench. Is it because of his intensity? That’s what is being reported.
MJS: “Yes, he can’t handle it. When he was hurt he tried to slip away at halftime and suit up and they had to get him away. He has a hard time being out there and not being able to do anything about it.”
Mizzo: I want to talk about the team a little more, but being I’m from the Philly area, I grew up a Sixers fan. The rivalry with the Celtics was intense. I hated the Boston Garden crowd. Seeing a sea of White folk cheering and being so passionate about their team? It sparked fire because the crowd here was diverse. I couldn’t stand when they panned through the crowd. It only changed for me when I walked through Boston before Game 1 last year and realized how nice everyone was. Not one person was foul and everyone helped me with anything I needed.
MJS: “There’s a big misconception about the Celtics. Growing up in California, I always thought the wrong way. Enough credit is not given to the fact that Red Auerbach was the first guy to draft a Black player. Red Auerbach was the first coach to have a Black starting five, the first to hire a Black head coach.
Even though there have been valid reasons for people to view Boston indifferently for racism issues, there was nobody that did more for the Black athlete than Red Auerbach back in the day. The thing is this: If the team wins, I don’t think people see color at all. Besides Brian Scalabrine, the team is entirely Black. No one here is thinking of that. They don’t see Black, they see green. They are in love with the Celtics…they are in love with that green. For what the team brought this city last year, I don’t think they see anything else.”
Mizzo: I speak on this whenever Boston comes to town. Ray Allen has this businesslike presence in the locker room that is unmistakable. Could you comment since you cover the team extensively?
MJS: “There’s three captains. Ray is very well read. He knows what’s going on in the world. Ray and I will have conversations in the locker room about whatever is current…really getting into it…and somebody will have to interview him. Ray is a very fascinating person to talk to. We talk about the violence going on in Mexico. Guys on the team kind of laugh at Ray because he’s like a cool nerd. He’s always bring up stuff most of the cats in the locker room have no idea what he’s talking about. I enjoy talking to Ray because he can talk about anything. It’s gonna be really interesting to see where he is when he’s done playing. I think he could go into politics. I think he could be a television analyst. He could go back into acting. There’s so much he could do…or he could do nothing. He obviously has the money and he has young kids. Ray might be the most interesting person I’ve ever covered in any sport. If there was this dinner and I could invite people from all walks of life, just to have an interesting conversation, Ray Allen definitely gets an invitation. They sky is the limit for him.”
Mizzo: You alluded to earlier about it being a dream to cover sports in Boston. Why does the area seem to be more about the team, than hyping individuals like many other cities?
MJS: “Boston is about championships. I’m sure they love their individual players but when it comes down to it, they wanna have that duck boat parade downtown. They wanna ask people how many championships do they have. How storied is your franchise? It’s all about rings and banners. They just love to win. In LA, even when they were so so, they would still come out because they knew Kobe Bryant would put on a show. Boston doesn’t care about that. They want the team to be really good. If that’s not the case, they are gonna be disappointed and not settle for less. They’ll still support the team, but it’s not about one guy, it’s about the team.
Mizzo: I ask this of all newspaper writers. Where do you see the genre going? How do we stop the bleeding and is the bleeding ever going to stop?
MJS: “We need to start charging online. Think about it. They say 100,000 people are reading the Globe online every week. Let’s say a half a million people are reading the Globe online. If you charge those people 2 dollars a week for a subscription, that would save a lot of jobs and a lot of newspapers.
Now we are giving our product away for free. I hope we change with the times and the right system is put in place to sustain the field. There may be some worry people will go to CNN, MSNBC or USA Today.com, but if you want that local, you have to go to that local paper.
What’s 2 dollars for a person who wants the best news possible? Hopefully in the near future, newspapers can figure out to charge a low rate to stay afloat.”
Marc and Bob Ryan after KG was reported out of the playoffs…
Mizzo: Marc what do you have to say about the Celtics season after the Orlando loss? Any finishing comments on your path?
MJS: “I respect the Celtics for being just one win shy of the Eastern Conference Finals without KG. Garnett is the heart and soul of the team and the star of their defense. Losing Leon Powe was huge, too. But by Boston’s success without them both, it shows how talented this team is. Rajon Rondo showed that he was a future All-Star. Glen Davis made a big name for himself and could be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate next season. Perkins also proved to be one of the best interior defenders in the NBA. If healthy, expect Boston to be a contender again next season.
I’ve just been blessed with having role models…good and bad. People who have showed me what and what not to do. I’ve learned a lot during this time and feel like I can get a lot better. I also feel like there’s a need to reach back and help aspiring youth or my fellow journalists if I can when they stumble. If I can help anybody, I wanna help them. What I’ve learned from Mark Purdy is that once you’ve got to a certain level, you have some power. That power cannot be taken for granted. Help those who aren’t on your level because you owe that debt to society. There’s always somebody who has helped you too.”